If opera is about bringing timeless dilemmas into focus, Claude should be an unqualified success. Here is a work, set in prison, about the injustice of the justice system. With a libretto by 84-year-old Robert Badinter, international campaigner against the death penalty (he outlawed it as minister of justice in France’s socialist government in 1981), Claude has the potential to resonate far beyond the opera world. The Opéra de Lyon has given it a strong context, staging the world premiere as part of a “Justice/Injustice” festival alongside Fidelio and Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero.
The easily accessible music is by Thierry Escaich (born 1965), best known internationally as an organist but with a burgeoning reputation as a composer of orchestral scores. Claude is his first opera and does not overstay its welcome. It lasts 90 minutes, unfolds in 16 narrative scenes with prologue and epilogue, and creates a palpable atmosphere of suspense and violence – all brassy flares, percussive thwacks and tensile strings. That’s partly why it seems so monothematic: with no female voices except as part of an atmospheric Greek chorus, the only “softening” touches are an offstage soprano folksong and a love scene for two prisoners.
A more obvious liability is its dramatic one-sidedness – something that could never be said of Janácek’s From the House of the Dead, also set in prison. While leaving ample space for Escaich’s music, Badinter uses the opera, adapted from Victor Hugo’s 1834 short story Claude Gueux, to grandstand on his bête noire, the death penalty, to the point where it becomes a manifesto. There’s no ambivalence. The prison director (Jean-Philippe Lafont) and his enforcers are thugs. The title character (Jean-Sébastien Bou) and Albin, his countertenor love interest (Rodrigo Ferreira), behave like dignified victims. Given this black-and-white scenario, the audience are left with nothing to think. The only available choice is to endorse Badinter’s agenda.
Despite Pierre-André Weitz’s colourless décor and costumes and an inexplicable appearance by a female ballet dancer in the finale, Olivier Py’s staging is taut and to the point. Under Jérémie Rhorer, the orchestra sounds fired up. Claude counts as a succès d’estime. It is not an operatic runner.